Irony and Sarcasm in Art / by Chris Hall

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I recently read a couple of interesting articles in the Remodernist Review and on Salon on the use of irony in the art world, and I felt compelled to share with you some of my thoughts as well.  In the Remodernist Review, Richard Bledsoe quotes a line from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot:  “I don't like irony. . . it indicates a small soul.”  I have to agree with this sentiment.  Irony is born out of pessimism.  It is something I can understand very well.  I have frequent bouts of pessimism in my life, and irony sometimes rears it's ugly head in my art-making.  But I believe it is something we should try to transcend.  We can do better than this.

In Bledsoe's article, he writes, “To embrace irony is to strike a pose of groundless superiority, to think social status is demonstrated by a jaded attitude.”  Bledsoe continues:

Irony is the philosophy of sour grapes.  Those who feel incapable of producing something with skill, meaning and significance like to act like they don’t want those achievements manifested in their works.  But even worse, and more treacherous, to preserve their facade they must suppress and undermine the works of others who are striving towards some higher purpose or accomplishment.  Sophisticated poseurs can tolerate no reminder of their own shortcomings. Irony is a form of passive-aggressive envy. . .  

Those are harsh accusations, but accusations that just might float.  It is true that a lot of bad contemporary art is justified by impenetrable theory and text, theory and text that is ironic and pessimistic in nature.  It just might be that the use of irony might be more than a crutch, but a purposeful obfuscation of the weakness of their argument and art. 

Irony, along with sarcasm, has infected our culture.  Not only is too readily apparent in contemporary art, it has also manifested itself in the way we interact with other people.  Going through the personals on dating websites (yes, ladies, I'm single) I frequently come upon a variation of the addendum “must like sarcasm.”  I see it so often that it has become a turn off.  To me, “must like sarcasm” is code for “I am so smart, so much smarter than you, that I can allow myself to be insulting and smug about it.”  Sarcasm is a form of detached, jaded insincerity.  It bespeaks a lack of curiosity, a closed mind, an unwillingness to learn, and a shallow personality.  Perhaps in small doses, it is OK, we all go there sometimes, but as a personality trait, I'm not interested.  Although contemporary art is filled with irony and sarcasm, I don't blame art for our culture's smug opinion of itself (today's art world is as insular and elitist as ever – not much of an influence on our cultural zeitgeist), instead I think the blame can safely be placed on the pop culture medium of television.  I also think that contemporary art, which draws from pop culture trends as much as it does from pessimistic critical theory, has followed suit.  The critical detachment of watching a train wreck and ironically discussing its aesthetic merits and flaws or political implications is not the environment with which I want to produce art work.  Remember the last two episodes of Seinfeld where the gang are jailed after watching, recording, and laughing as a man is carjacked at gunpoint in front of them?  It is a damning criticism of where I think our culture is now, the whole better you than me attitude.  Everyone laughs, and nobody stops to help.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no saint.  Sometimes I, too, can be jaded, smug, etc., but I always try to treat others with sincerity and respect.  I think my use of sarcasm and irony can be traced to my sometimes excessive sense of pride.  Pride is perhaps the strongest of my faults (that, and Anger – which often stems from my impatience and disappointment at seeing the world fail to live up to my ideals and expectations).  I try to keep my faults in check whenever they appear, and while I am more successful at keeping Pride in check, Anger, being more of an emotion than an attitude, is sometimes harder to control.  Humility is the key . . . recognizing that there have been, are presently, and will be people more talented and intelligent than you is but one step on the path toward achieving the peace that comes with wisdom.  But this is hard in the Ego driven world, where success is often measured proportionately with how much Ego you have, and how much you brag about yourself.  I have no time for Egotism in my life.  There is always so much more to work on, to make better, and to learn.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

One of the reasons Postmodern and contemporary art critics give as to why sincerity and passion is bad for art and the world is addressed in Matt Ashby's and Brendan Carroll's article in Salon.  In it they write:  

Skeptics reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. They think strong conviction implies vulnerability to emotional rhetoric and lack of critical awareness. But the goal of great art is the same whether one approaches it seriously or dubiously. To make something new, to transcend, one must have an honest relationship with what is: history, context, form, tradition, oneself.

Today the critical default is skepticism and pessimism.  Skepticism and pessimism in critical theory was partially born out of the use of art and aesthetics to inspire blind devotion in Nazi Germany.  Pessimistic critical theory gained further appeal with the failure of art to spark a world wide revolution in 1968.  But I believe with all my heart that we can not just lay there at the bottom of the hill, licking our wounds, laughing as others also fall down.  If optimism isn't your thing, then call it something else, like Schopenhauer's animalistic “Will” to carry on.  The only thing that matters is that we've got to get up and try again!  It is OK to aspire to great things and to stand up for your ideals.  Somebody's got to be the hero, and if its not going to be you, if you are not going to even try, then I may as well have a crack at it.  I know the odds are stacked against me, and that I may very well fail, but I know that I will at least be the better human being for having been brave enough to try.

In the Salon article, Ashby and Carroll ask some important questions:

So, to be more nuanced about what’s at stake: In the present moment, where does art rise above ironic ridicule and aspire to greatness, in terms of challenging convention and elevating the human spirit? Where does art build on the best of human creation and also open possibilities for the future? What does inspired art-making look like?

One might be tempted to look toward the recent past, towards Modernism for examples of “inspired art,” but we don't have to.  There are plenty of people working in contemporary art, exiles still working on the edges of the officially sanctioned art world institutions, waiting for their time to come.  These artists, whether they are aware of it or not, are part of a growing art movement called Remodernism.  Truly inspired artists, once scattered to the winds in the contemporary art wasteland, are now starting to find each other, banding together for strength in numbers, and they are starting to challenge the status quo and stir things up a bit.  My hope is that the movement will continue to grow and gain momentum.  Richard Bledsoe closes out his article in his blog Remodernist Review with the following:

It’s an exciting time to be an artist, and help the world move past the self-serving decadence the self-proclaimed elites cultivate.  It’s time to call the bluffs, stand up to the bullying, and put the perpetrators to the test.  Can their art survive outside the privileged cloisters they huddle in?

It is hard to know exactly what art and the world will be like in the future.  We can only speculate based on current circumstances and past examples in art history.  In art history we know that Modernism rescued art from the stale clutches of 19th century Academic art, and that there was a spiritual revival in art (Abstract Expressionism) following the comparatively more decadent period of art between the two world wars and the fascist aesthetics of the mid-1930's.  Today it seems that there are a few loud voices of dissent operating on the margins of the art world, while a large group of hard-line Postmodernists remain burrowed in the skin of our art institutions like ticks, sucking in as much blood as they can before they die off.  And they are dying off.  By far the largest group of people in the art world are the ambivalents.  They may go either way.  While some may be flat out opportunists, I feel the vast majority of these people are truly getting tired of all the irony and sarcasm.  They are just looking for something to believe in again.  They want something better.  The Postmodern parasites will, no doubt, promote successors who share a similar philosophical background.  There is not much we can do about that.  What we can do is make our voices loud and our message clear, and promote an attractive alternative agenda to replace what is currently being offered by our art institutions.  Perhaps someday our ranks will grow large enough where we can properly challenge those who now hold power in the art world institutions.  Perhaps someday it will not all be in vain.